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ProComp fires duds in MS Media Player broadside

Bigger fish than Real are getting fried

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The latest broadside from ProComp, or the Project to Promote Competition and Innovation in the Digital Age - the lobby group backed by Microsoft competitors - will make depressing reading for its sponsors. ProComp has contrived to sail through a closely packed convoy, all guns firing, without hitting anything.

The lobby group's latest challenge is based on reports last week that Windows Media Player 8 will be accessible only to Windows XP.

This, ProComp complains, is exactly the kind of anti-competitive bundling which the 1995 Consent Decree was intended to prevent, and formed the core of the DoJ's case.

"If the 'browser war' is at all instructive, it is apparent that Microsoft will be successful in eliminating both Real Network's Real Player and Apple's QuickTime Player as competitive threats in the niche applications market for streaming audio and video -- thus chalking up another once-vibrant and competitive applications market to its ever-expanding monopoly," claims ProComp in a white paper published last week.

Microsoft had little trouble brushing this off at the weekend, giving BetaNews the standard 'innovation' line. In fact Microsoft had more trouble feigning interest.

ProComp admits that the broadside is based on news reports, rather than anything official. But it claims that the policy - if it is a policy - of steering users to WMP8 only though the latest OS is worse than the IE browser integration shenanigans.

Well, there are a few parallels. Media Player 7 is popularly viewed as the weakest link in the Windows Me chain, and probably provides 9x users with their biggest single incentive for Windows 98 users to stay where they are.

But Microsoft shrewdly considers media playback as a strategic priority, and doesn't want to be in the same position as it was post-IE4, when senior exec Jim Allchin notoriously asked: "I don't understand how IE's going to win. The current path is simply to copy everything that Netscape does packaging and product-wise," as he helpfully offered 'integration' as the killer punch.

And it's true that at height of the browser wars, Microsoft offered versions for Windows 3.x, shipped a reasonable Mac version and a hilarious Unix version, in addition to the integrated Win98 IE.

But where ProComp really loses the plot is with some of its other assertions. It claims that the freebie bundled apps are invariably used to drag users into using Microsoft server products.

Which is largely true, but the path cited: 'Outlook Express --> Exchange Server & Windows 2000 Server' stretches credulity. If a business decides on Exchange Server, it's not because the client is being bundled. And rather more obviously, the assertion that "Outlook Express is a slimmed down version of Outlook" is simply incorrect.

It's a case of re-fighting the last battle with the same ammunition. One of the Microsoft's more enduring arguments was that the provision of Netscape through Internet downloads or CD-ROMs meant that Redmond could not be found guilty of cutting off the air supply.

Following this argument to its natural conclusion, no software supplier with a market monopoly could be found find guilty of abusing its position, providing the competition offered its wares over the Internet. That's ludicrous, and yet ProComp devotes little attention to countering it. It ought to, as the Appellate Court bit on this in the recent hearing.

Microsoft's more obvious integration ploy in HailStorm has gone little remarked upon: ensuring the new web-based services pass through Microsoft's own servers.

This vertical integration doesn't so much target an individual competitor as much as it prevents any new competitors arriving on to a brand new market. Arguments about how 'open' Microsoft's protocols are in this case are redundant: it doesn't matter, when traffic is passing through Passport, and Microsoft is collecting a toll.

That's the case McNealy (whose Sun is one of ProComp's backers) has made, and one ProComp ought to be making, and it requires a little sophistication. But not too much, surely: it's the tollgate argument, that the FTC successfully used to block the Intuit purchase six years ago.

But going by ProComp's white paper, Larry and Scott ought to ask for their money back. ®

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